Thursday, December 08, 2011


Children in restaurants are a controversial topic.
In my bit of East London, they are pretty much everywhere -- I even spotted a sleeping baby at an open mic night in the basement of a local cocktail bar. In places with a different demographic they can be less welcome.
I wouldn't take mine to, say, the Fat Duck, Le Gavroche or the local old man's boozer. But in a cafe in the daytime, I reckon it's fair game. A girl has to eat, after all.
As someone who's never been a huge fan of (other people's) children, I am, however, very self conscious about taking the baby places and perhaps have an overactive imagination when it comes to public disapproval.
So it's possible that the hostility I felt in Notes in Covent Garden was entirely my own perception -- maybe the server was just having a bad day -- but I felt it acutely nonetheless.
It looked much like any other modern cafe: coffee in small glasses, a large wooden bar/counter and posh-looking sandwiches for around a fiver each. A later, closer inspection revealed aspirations for higher things with bottles of wine and a (presumably trendy) music shop downstairs.
The guy behind the counter glanced at me and the pushchair with about as much enthusiasm as at the homeless guy who walked in before me. To be fair, the baby was on the grumpy side.
There wasn't much in the way of a detailed food menu, possibly because the offerings change regularly. I would have liked more information, more detailed answers to my questions about the fare on offer on the counter. Like to be told that the sausage rolls weren't just the ordinary kind, but pork and apple. I would have ordered them then. Or to be given the option of having some salad with the sandwich I hastily chose in the end, as other customers were later (admittedly by a different server). As I say, it could have been my imagination, but the guy seemed pretty impressed when I said I was eating in. He did offer to bring my coffee and sandwich to me (I don't know if this is what they normally do), but in the end this just meant I ended up having to queue a second time in order to pay (resisting the urge to sneak out).
When he appeared with the order, I asked if I could also have a mandarinade, which I'd spotted on the board in the meantime, and which had intrigued me. He said yes, but this never appeared, even though there was a lull in customers while I was eating.

The sandwich was nice -- silky, salty goats cheese with velvety aubergines and the sweet tang of (I think) onion marmalade. It was a little over-peppered though, and some cutlery would have been nice to scoop up the filling and cut through the crusty bread. The coffee was fine, but the entire experience left a bit of a sour taste. Back in the fresh air, I continued towards Covent Garden, stumbling on the bustling Real Food Market, which I discovered to be a regular Thursday occurrence. I wish I'd eaten there instead.
Notes could be a good place for music, and you could definitely do worse if you are looking for a quick bite or drink in the area, but I'd give it a miss if you are with a baby.

Notes, 36 Wellington St, Covent Garden, WC2E 7BD; Tel. 02072407899;

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Potato Gratin -- Cheat's Dauphinoise

When it comes to cooking at home, I am not much of a traditionalist and I am a big fan of short cuts and time-savers.
A real, pedigree gratin dauphinois is made in the South East of France with impossibly thin slivers of raw spuds, slathered in milk and cream and baked in the oven for an hour or more with delicious results. In the neighbouring Savoie they make it even better by adding cheese.
At home in East London, I do not possess a mandolin -- or much patience. This means that on the few occasions when I have tried raw potato bakes (such as the gratin dauphinois, or its stock-based cousin, potatoes boulangere), they have come out burnt on the top and al-dente in the middle.
My salvation came in the unlikely source of a Russian magazine, which suggested cooking the potatoes in a mixture of cream and cream first (a method I letter heard is also favoured by Nigella).
Serve with some greens (spinach, salad, etc), either on its own or as an accompaniment to beef (roast, steak or even carpaccio) or gammon.

Serves 2-4, depending on appetites and how much other stuff you serve with it
600g potatoes
1/2 pint milk
200g double cream (or creme fraiche)
garlic, nutmeg, pepper, salt
200g cheese (Gruyere or Beaufort for Savoyard authenticity, but cheddar also works)

Slice the potatoes as thinly as your patience and kitchen implements allow. Preheat oven to 120 degrees.
Mix the milk and the cream in a pan, add chopped garlic and potatoes, season with nutmeg and pepper. Bring to the boil. Add potatoes, turn down heat and simmer for about 10 minutes.
Using a slotted spoon, layer out the potatoes into a gratin dish.
Pour over the milk/cream and top with grated cheese. Cook in the oven for about 20 minutes, until the top is golden with melted cheesy goodness.
Bon appétit.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

John Charlick

Many moons ago, I was a young graduate working near Chancery Lane.
The smoky old-man boozer where we used to go on Friday nights is now an airy gastro pub, and the cafe where I bought my morning croissant and coffee for 99 pence is long gone.
But one local institution is still going strong -- John Charlick.
It's a tiny deli, serving sandwiches and salads to lawyers and other locals for three decades worth of lunchtimes.

I was pleased to see that my favourite mackrel pate is still on the short menu. Spread thickly on rye bread it still tasted absolutely divine.
There are a couple of tables outside, but Gray's Inn Road isn't the prettiest spot. If you have kids, grab your sandwich and head to Coram's Fields, a seven acre playground and park in to which adults are only allowed if accompanied by a minor. Or, for a more serene atmosphere, head to Gray's Inn Field.

John Charlick, 142 Gray's Inn Road, Holborn, WC1X 8AX; Tel.
020 7278 9187

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